Gender & Worship

There are serious differences over the role of women in public worship, along with the part they are to play in church leadership. The egalitarian (or feminist) position, and I have known several Christian women who take it, argues that God’s original intent was for gender to be irrelevant with reference to leadership roles in both the home and the church. One effect of Adam´s sin, they argue, was to replace this original equality with the male domination and female submission structure in play today. Consequently, it is claimed that one of the counter-effects of the Lord’s work on the cross was to abolish this sinful system, at least in His church, and restore the egalitarianism God originally intended. Using Galatians 3:28 as their proof-text, they claim that women may serve the church as elders, deacons, and preachers.

Although the Christians I have known who take the egalitarian position would not go quite this far, nevertheless, they have sought what they consider to be a more active role for women in worship. At the moment, this position does not appear to be much of a threat to the Lord’s church, although there are pockets of it here and there. Even so, it is true that big things often start as something small and seemingly insignificant. It is, therefore, imperative that we consider this issue before it becomes a major problem.

The other position, the one I believe the Bible teaches, is called complementarianism (or hierarchicalism), and teaches that God’s original intention for the human race, established at creation, is clearly stated in 1 Cor. 11:3, which says, “the head of woman is man.” In other words, the male-female/headship-submission structure did not originate with the Fall, but was, in fact, only distorted by it. Consequently, Jesus’ work on the cross did not abolish male headship and establish egalitarianism. Instead, Gal. 3:28, which is the sugar-stick of the feminists, speaks to the equality of males and females concerning salvation (viz., all have equal access to it), and not to every situation of life. Contrary to what the egalitarians believe and think, this verse was never meant to apply to the issue of role distinctions. The headship and submission roles are still assigned to husbands and wives respectively (cf. Eph. 5:22-24), and women are prohibited from serving in roles which would require them to teach or have authority over a man (cf. 1 Tim. 2:12).

For many today, including the egalitarians mentioned above, such a position is not only much too restrictive and inconsistent with the egalitarian spirit of the age, but it actually demeans womanhood. To tell you the truth, short of conversion, I really don´t think it will be possible to convince these folks otherwise. However, and this is the point of this article, I do think the restrictions many churches of Christ place on women add to the perception that women are being thought of as second-class citizens of the kingdom of God. Therefore, it is this kind of thinking to which we now turn our attention.

Women’s Silence

1 Cor. 14:34-35 says: “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church” (NKJV). Some argue that Paul is dealing with a cultural issue at Corinth that is not an issue for us today. Others, believing that tongue speaking and prophesying have ceased, argue that the particular conditions that restricted women from speaking in the assemblies of the saints are not in force today. Yet others think that because Paul said “let them ask their own husbands at home” (v. 35), it is only the wives of the prophets who are prohibited from speaking in the church. Still others, like myself, believe that although the exact circumstances mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 are not in play today, nevertheless, the principle—namely, a woman is not to teach or exercise authority over a man in the assemblies of the saints (cf. 1 Tim. 2:11-12)—is still in force today. In other words, the principle of a woman’s silence in the assemblies of the saints is the same in 1 Cor. 14:34-35 as it is in 1 Tim. 2:11-12, and this principle has in no way been superseded by Gal. 3:28, as feminists, egalitarians, liberals, and other deconstructionists claim. What Paul said in all three of these passages is totally consistent, and certainly not contradictory as some contend, and is therefore the objective standard for all New Testament Christians, whether in the first century or the twenty-first.

Unfortunately, too many Christians over the years have believed that the silence Paul enjoins upon women in 1 Cor. 14:34-35 is absolute. A cursory reading of what Paul said seems to support such a view. Consequently, some brethren have no problem prohibiting women from teaching classes that the church provides for women and children (there are still those around who believe these must be taught by men). These same folks have prohibited women from speaking in Bible  classes, even when it is to ask a question or seek clarification. Thankfully, this is not a majority opinion, but it is held by some brethren, and I mention it here because I believe it to be related to the next interpretation of 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-12, which does, in fact, appear to be the majority position of those who make up conservative, non-institutional churches of Christ.

“The Assembly” Argument

Many brethren argue that the silence required of women in 1 Cor. 14:34-35 has to do with “the assembly” (with the definite emphasis on the “the”), and not when the church is disassembled for age- or subject-related Bible classes. Consequently, the argument goes, when the whole church is assembled for worship, and this is what they are calling  “the assembly,” women must be silent and not speak. On the other hand, when the church is divided into classes, which is not “the assembly,” women may ask questions and make comments consistent with learning, but only so long as they do not teach or exercise authority over the men in the class (cf. 1 Tim. 2:11-12). This is what I will be calling “the assembly” argument — an argument I believe is not altogether sound.

I contend that the silence of 1 Cor. 14:34-35 does not refer to only “the assembly” (viz., the whole church called together for worship), but to any and all assemblies of the church, whether it be a Lord’s day assembly called to partake of the Lord´s supper and other such acts of worship and devotion, or an assembly called to study the word, or even an assembly of the whole church called together to consider some matter of “business” (cf. Acts 6:3). This means that I believe the principle of women’s silence taught in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-12 are, as far as the principle they articulate, actually parallel passages. Consider, if you will, the following illustration, as I believe it will aid you in seeing this for yourself.

Parallel Passages

1 Corinthians 14 1 Timothy 2
“for they are not permitted to speak” (34) “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man” (12)
“but they are to be submissive” (35) “but to be in silence” (12)
“if they want to learn something” (35) “Let a woman learn” (11)
“let them ask their own husbands at home” (35) “in silence with all submission” (11)
“as the law also says” (34) Adam and Eve in creation and sin (13-14)

Consequently, the restriction placed on women that prevented them from teaching or having authority over men prohibited them from exercising whatever teaching gifts the Holy Spirit may have given them when the exercise of such gifts would put them in competition with men. This is what I understand Paul to be teaching in 1 Cor. 14:34-35. The teaching of God’s word, and this from the very beginning, was that women, at least in the home and church, were to be in subjection to, and not in competition with, men. Paul makes this clear when he says that “Adam was formed first, then Eve” (1 Tim. 2:13). Therefore, and according to the law of God, women are to “keep silent in the churches” when their failure to do so would cause them to interfere with men´s God-given roles.

Contrary to what the egalitarians argue, the issue here is not one of competence or ability (i.e., Paul is not demeaning nor denigrating women), as I’m sure that many of the women prophets were quite capable. Maybe some of them were even more capable, when it came to their God-given abilities, than some men, but again, this is not the issue. The issue was one of roles, and as God has not granted women the right to teach or exercise authority over men, they were to “keep silent in the churches.” This silence was just as silent as the male prophets had to be when God revealed something “to another who sits by” (1 Cor. 14:29). It was just as silent as a male tongue-speaker had to be if there was no male interpreter who could interpret what he was saying (cf. vv.27-28).

Could any of these continue to speak where and when they were authorized? Certainly. Their being “silent” only related to the God-ordained tasks being regulated. Women could sing (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), make confession of sin (1 Jn. 1:9), as well as make the good confession of faith in the presence of “many witnesses” (1 Tim. 6:12). Thankfully, and I believe correctly, many churches of Christ permit women to do all these things. However, this is not the proof that this is what 1 Cor. 14:34-35 is actually teaching. But it does serve to demonstrate that most brethren today recognize that the limitations placed on women in 1 Cor. 14:34-35 is qualified by the passages mentioned above. (Understanding this is key to understanding the argument I am making, so I´ll have more to say about this in a moment.)

Discounting the exercise of the miraculous gifts that were in play when Paul wrote to the Corinthians, gifts that are no longer being exercised today, the consistent principle being invoked for all times in these verses is that the Lord does not permit women to teach or exercise authority over men “in the church.” And although it may be true — based on what Paul said about the order of creation — that this principle may actually be broader than the church, I don´t think anyone can be dogmatic about this, as it is clear from the context that Paul said what he said so that Timothy would “know how [he] ought to conduct [himself] in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

So, then, does the “be silent” principle mean that a woman must be absolutely silent in the assemblies of the saints, as some have taught? Or, instead, does it mean that women are prevented from engaging in certain actions — namely, teaching or exercising authority over a man? These questions serve as the crux of the matter, as I see it. If women are to be absolutely silent in our assemblies, then it is not permissible for them to participate in congregational singing, for to do so, according to Eph. 5:19, involves “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” Therefore, if every form of speaking in the church is “shameful” for a woman (cf. 1 Cor. 14:35), then it would clearly be wrong for women to engage in congregational singing, would it not? But if it is not wrong for women to engage in congregational singing, which Paul makes clear is a form of  “speaking,” and I don´t know of any brethren who would argue that it is wrong, then the passage does not prohibit women from speaking in the church in every case.

The Principle Of Qualification

To properly interpret Scripture, it is important for the Bible student to be familiar with the principle of qualification. And what, you say, is the principle of qualification? Let me begin with an illustration. If we can imagine the Bible as a great symphony orchestra, and the Holy Spirit as its Arturo Toscanini, then just as the orchestra plays the notes the great conductor desires, so the Bible, with its great assortment of instruments, produces the message the Holy Spirit wants. When orchestrated or arranged, we have the entire symphony or word of God, as the case may be. Just as each instrumentalist’s part becomes fully clear when played in relation to all the other parts, so any one passage of the Bible becomes clear in its relationship to all other passages. This means that if we hold an interpretation of one passage that contradicts another, at least one of these passages is being interpreted incorrectly. The Holy Spirit does not — indeed cannot — disagree with Himself. For example, one passage cannot be saying we are saved by faith alone (cf. Rom. 3:28), if there is another clear passage that says we are not saved by faith only (cf. Jas. 2:24). Therefore, passages where the obvious meaning is clear help us to understand passages that are sometimes less clear. Because the Bible makes it clear that it is the sum total of God´s word that is the truth on any one subject (cf. Psa. 119:160, NAS), we know that comparing scripture with scripture helps us to understand that one passage can actually qualify another.

So, what exactly do I mean by “qualify”? Simply this: one passage can, in fact, limit or restrict another. Although a qualification may, at first, appear to be a contradiction or denial of a passage, it is not. A qualification merely sets the particular passage in perspective by applying additional information about the topic under discussion.  Thus, Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16, which we have traditionally understood to authorize congregational singing, do not contradict 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-12; they simply qualify them. In other words, Paul´s prohibition against women speaking in church did not exclude them from “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” as Ephesians 5:19 authorizes, or “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” as Col. 3:16 commands.

Therefore, and specifically because scripture does not contradict scripture, the shameful speaking that Paul, in 1 Cor. 14:34-35, associated with women “in church” is not absolute, but qualified. If so, and I simply do not see how it can be denied, then citing 1 Cor. 14:34-35 as if it is an absolute blanket over women speaking in “the assembly” just does not hold water; that is, it is not a sound biblical argument (please excuse my mixed metaphors here).

Women are authorized not only to speak in our assemblies, but to teach and admonish as well. Are there limitations? Yes. Have brethren always correctly discerned these limitations? No. Some, misinterpreting 1 Cor. 14:34-35 have bound where God hasn’t bound; others, in their misunderstanding of this and other passages, have loosed where God hasn’t loosed. Both are wrong, and are extremes to be avoided.

Binding Where God Hasn’t Bound

I know of New Testament Christians who believe that when a woman is permitted to publicly confess her faith in an assembly of the saints, she has violated 1 Cor. 14:34-35. This is either because they are blindly following tradition (i.e., “This is the way we’ve always done it.”), or because they have failed to appreciate the principle of qualification, or perhaps both. Ironically, these same folks regularly preach and teach that in order to be saved one must confess the resurrected Jesus as Lord (cf. Rom. 10:9). But Paul goes on to say in the very next verse that this confession is to be made “with the mouth.” Thus, when women are prohibited from making a verbal confession in an assembly, then not only do these who bind this violate Rom. 10:10, they also violate the truth taught in Gal 3:28, which is that salvation is an equal opportunity endeavor, open to Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.

Those who so teach ought to seriously consider the admonition the apostle Paul made in the very context of 1 Cor. 14:34-35, for in verses 36 thru 38, he said: “Or did the word of God come originally from you? Or was it you only that it reached? If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord. But if anyone is  ignorant, let him be ignorant.” This is, of course, a sharp rebuke, but one that was much needed. No one has the right to supersede or abridge the divinely revealed word, and the Corinthians were acting like they had permission to do so. Such arrogance and ignorance, if it can´t be effectively admonished and rebuked, needs to be exposed for what it is. In other words, if one, after being taught on this, is determined to be ignorant, “let him be ignorant,” Paul says. It is unfortunate, but true, that some brethren, even those who we would call “sound” on the institutional question, are determined to prevent the preaching and teaching of the truth on this subject and are, therefore, content to be ignorant on this issue. Therefore, they should be identified as arrogant and ignorant people who are in rebellion against God. Because such plainness of speech isn’t considered by many to be very “nice,” it is hard to find a group of Christians who are willing to do what Paul said. Why, then, are we dismayed that the arrogant and ignorant all too frequently “rule” or control a local church?

Loosening Where God Hasn’t Loosed

On the other hand, and in some cases in reaction to the ignorance mentioned above, some brethren have begun to thrust women into positions that cause them to violate the principles of 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-12. In other words, they are loosening where God has not loosed. It is the opposite extreme from those who bind where God hasn’t bound, but it is equally as wrong.

Ironically, and not just incidentally, I have known those who argue that binding where God hasn’t bound is better than loosening where God hasn’t loosed. Their defense, if you can believe it, is that binding  is more “conservative” than loosening. Such is, of course, exactly the position of the Pharisees who confronted Jesus in Matthew 12:1-2. In the Lord’s response to their charge that He was permitting His disciples to violate the law of Moses by plucking the heads of grain as they walked through the grain-field on the Sabbath, Jesus made it clear that His disciples were not violating the law of Moses, but only the man-made restrictions placed on the Jews by their Rabbinic traditions. Clearly then, binding where God hasn’t bound is just as wrong as loosening where He hasn’t loosed, and it is to this loosening that we will turn our attention in part II of this study.

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